The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age
    Michael Wolraich's picture

    Overestimating McCain

    Due to his experience, military record, media popularity, reputation as a straightshooter, and appeal among independents, McCain is regarded a strong contender for the Presidency in 2008, and he may well be, but it's too early to know. We can speculate endlessly about what attributes are most important to voters and how McCain's strengths and weaknesses match up against those of Obama and Clinton, but it's mostly guesswork. In this post, I will instead focus on McCain's record. Not his voting record, his campaign record. Obama has recently made the argument that a well-run campaign augurs a well-run government. I propose a slightly less provocative thesis: a well-run primary campaign augurs a well-run general election campaign, and the inverse, a poorly-run primary campaign augurs a poorly-run general election campaign.

    This election, the Democrats have competed in the equivalent of NCAA Division I, whereas the Republicans were demoted to Division II. Whoever wins the Democratic nomination will have beaten two very strong candidates and a few others that were none too shabby. McCain's competition has been pathetic to the point of comedy. As he himself aptly put it, "I feel like Will Smith in 'I Am Legend' - I'm the last guy standing that's not a zombie." Moreover, the last time McCain competed against a strong candidate, G.W. Bush, he only won New Hampshire. In short, Obama and Clinton have been well-tested in a bruising race, whereas McCain's ability to win the primary demonstrates little about his electability.

    A look at the specifics of the race bolsters this high-level argument. Obama and Clinton have run very strong campaigns. Both have shattered previous records for fundraising and primary votes. Many criticize Clinton's campaign strategy for blowing her lead against an inexperienced challenger, but take a look at the polling trends at Clinton has shown steady growth for her entire campaign. Obama has overtaken her, not because her popularity has collapsed, but because he has surged in the past two months. Moreover, though his inexperience is a handicap, Obama has by almost all accounts conducted a brilliant and groundbreaking campaign. Clinton's current difficulties are more a measure of his campaign strength than her campaign weakness.

    Compare the Republicans. The campaign strategies of McCain's two main rivals, Romney and Giuliani, ranged from ill-conceived to hallucinogenic, and McCain's own campaign has been notable only for its tenacity. His fundraising has been far less successful than that of the top Democrats: he raised only $41M in 2007, compared to Clinton's $116M, Obama's $102M, and Edwards' $44M. The money that he did raise, was poorly managed:

    And the campaign had burned through most of the $24 million it had raised in the first half of the year on hefty salaries for staff members and consultants, a heavy travel schedule and all manner of other expenses, leaving it with less cash at the end of June than even the bare-bones presidential campaign of Representative Ron Paul, Republican of Texas. Aides said that the problems started to peak two weeks ago at a meeting with Mr. McCain and about 100 contributors in 100-degree weather at his home in Sedona, Ariz. It was just before that meeting, aides said, that Mr. McCain and his wife, Cindy, were told how bleak the campaign’s financial situation was. They said the McCains were startled and enraged. Aides said Mr. McCain expressed concern that the image of his campaign overspending would invite mockery from opponents at a time when he is attacking excessive government spending. One McCain associate said the senator expressed astonishment at the Sedona meeting that he had spent so much money without putting a single advertisement on television. (NYT 7/11/07)

    Part of the problem was an overly optimistic expectation of success and the lack of a backup plan. (Sound familiar?) The NYT article continues:

    Last November, Mr. Davis, with the assent of Mr. Nelson and Mr. Weaver, argued that Mr. McCain would have no trouble supporting a political machine on the scale of the 2004 Bush campaign, presenting himself as the president’s anointed heir. From that perspective, Mr. Davis argued, the campaign should expect to raise $120 million this year, including $50 million in the first six months, about twice as much as what turned out to be true. "We had false assumptions about how much money could be raised,” said Mark Salter, a senior aide to Mr. McCain. "It's not fair to pin it on anybody. We all had this expectation that money was going to be very easy for us to raise."

    Finally, the result of McCain's financial disaster was a staff blowout that makes Clinton's recent shakeup look modest.

    Some of Mr. McCain’s associates described the campaign as wracked by infighting, with Mr. Davis, who was with Mr. McCain when he ran for president in 2000, butting heads with Mr. Nelson, who was the political director for President Bush’s 2004 campaign. The associates said the infighting intensified in the aftermath of the announcement last week that the campaign had just $2 million left after spending at a rate of $1 million a week. At the time, Mr. McCain was forced to lay off 80 of the campaign’s 120 staff members. Mr. McCain’s associates said that more senior officials were expected to leave in the coming days as part of the upheaval. (NYT 7/10/07)

    For more evidence of a struggling campaign, take a look at the Republican trends: Belying the received wisdom that McCain has always been unpopular with the Republican base, he began the race neck-and-neck with Giuliani and well above everyone else. Then his popularity steadily declined by half until the end of 2008. Now that's blowing a lead. But what reversed the trend? There is no evidence of anything that McCain did at the end of 2008 to change the course of the race, but two events worked in his favor. First, the surge in Iraq showed signs of success. McCain had championed the surge earlier in the year, and as his campaign faltered, his pro-war stance was cited as a strategic misstep. When the surge gained favor, his position was vindicated. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Giuliani's campaign took an historic nosedive. Looking at the trendlines, all the Republican candidates benefited from Giuliani's decline but none more than McCain. His popularity surged inversely to Giuliani's fall, suggesting that Giuliani supporters simply switched to McCain as their candidate became unviable.

    The general election may be different. McCain has demonstrated resilience, and he may yet produce a smart, disciplined, and effective campaign. But in closing, I'd like to recall another presidential nominee who early in the primary season "struggled in fundraising, languished in polls and fired top aides" (AP 7/10/07) before coming back to win the primary and then ultimately running another weak campaign that resulted in a loss in the general election: John Kerry.


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